AbstractsLaw & Legal Studies

American Steamboat Gothic: Disruptive Commerce and Slavery's Liquidation, 1832-1865

by Matthew Axtell

Institution: Princeton University
Year: 2016
Keywords: Capitalism; Equal Protection; Labor; Legal History; Rivers; Slavery
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2093006
Full text PDF: http://arks.princeton.edu/ark:/88435/dsp013197xp44q


In the three decades before the Civil War, during the height of America’s fabled steamboat era, marginalized classes of people alongside the nation’s inland waterways began to erode discriminatory norms of economic and political citizenship through the formal structures of everyday commercial law. Within the riverfront economy of the Ohio River Valley, disruptive concepts about property and contract, initially designed to expedite the exchange of goods on Nineteenth-Century levees during a phase of rapid economic expansion, quickly spread beyond their initial bounds in waterfront law offices, creating subversive conceptual spaces for social change to occur from below, and sometimes across the color line. Rather than threatening individual liberty or slowing economic activity, routine transfers of rivergoing property on western waterfronts during the ages of Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, even when involuntary, occasionally empowered private actors in a way that upset social hierarchies between buyers and sellers, banks and laborers, masters and slaves. Always contested and often bloody, this egalitarian process was eventually backed by centralized government force by the time of the Civil War through the administrative apparatus of the U.S. Treasury Department, headed by Salmon P. Chase, a former steamboat lawyer and antislavery advocate from the Ohio River town of Cincinnati. During Chase’s turn as the Sixth Chief Justice of the United States in the early days of Reconstruction, this process was even given permanent constitutional form through the dual mechanisms of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Today, understanding the legal history of Salmon P. Chase’s lost world challenges a dominant narrative depicting everyday economic institutions like property and contract as largely functioning as the near-perfect weapons of the strong over the weak during the Nineteenth-Century American past. Indeed, it details a private law tradition of “equitable commerce” and inclusive property ownership that helped to catalyze a “long history of emancipation” predating Ft. Sumter and extending beyond Appomattox, informing and supplementing later public law understandings of “equal protection” that traced their hidden origins to the complex law and economics of America’s volatile riverboat era. Advisors/Committee Members: Hartog, Hendrik (advisor).